At the Cannes Film Festival in 2015, Hou Hsiao-hsien won his first Award director for “The Assassin.” After being nominated six times to Cannes, this award comes late for him. At 68 years old, Hou Hsiao-hsien is one of the most important Asian filmmakers of this generation. Hou Hsiao-hsien began his film career in 1973. Beginning as a logkeeper, he accumulated his experiences, and finally became a figurehead of the new Taiwanese film wave in the 1980 alongside Edward Yang, (director of “A One and a Two” ).
His first films are born of personal writing from personal experiences. “The Time to Live and the Time to Die” (1985) describes his childhood and adolescence; “A Summer at Grandpa’s” (1986) comes from the experience of his scriptwriter Chu Tien-wen; and “Dust in the Wind” (1986) is the love story of Wu Nien-jen – a friend and well-known writer. He can achieve the dramatic frame, to focus on the emotional. His individual experiences reflect the realism of Taiwan society. His long takes are objective and calm. They are thought since the book “The Autobiography of Congwen”, offered by his scriptwriter Chu Tien-wen. Hou Hsiao-hsien acknowledged there “the objective point of view and without exaggeration”: a way of observing the world and life, and to film what it deploys in “City of Sadness” (1989), a calm power to observe the misery of the characters in the changing times.
The personal writing, dramatic weakening and long take constitute his aesthetic style. These three characteristics are labels of his first films, but are also found in his later creations. “Flowers of Shanghai” (1998) is adapted from a novel regarding the Qing Dynasty. The context of history is no longer in 1960s Taiwan, but in 19th century Shanghai; it is a new attempt. Unlike other costume dramas, “Flowers of Shanghai” maintains the characteristics of a long take: 130 minutes of film but only 38 shots, and only one subjectively. Through its aesthetic style, he found a new way to make costume film.
Similarly, “The Assassin” is his first attempt at a martial arts film. It continued the usual features of Hou Hsiao-hsien. The film centers on a female assassin, Nie Yinniang, who is in charge of assassinating the ruler, and coincidentally her first love. In the film, the theatricality of the plot is weakened. The inner feelings of the characters are more important, especially the loneliness of Nie Yinniang, “alone, no similar”. Hou Hsiao-Hsien removed all the scenes he considered imperfect, weakening its narrative to reach the pinnacle, even leaving the public in a fuzzy feeling after the vision. After all this, Hou Hsiao-hsien does not care. “I’m not saying to go communicate with the public; I do not retain the idea. My idea is that they have their proper vision; the bottom line is my vision,” he says. Maybe the spectators who have followed his film career could understand it. In his pursuit aesthetics, the narrative is not really the most important, is it?
The preparation of The Assassin lasted eight years. This is incredible in the industrialization of cinema today. And the continuation of its aesthetic style is destined to a minority of spectators. Hou Hsiao-Hsien is just like his character in the film: “alone, not similar.”
Written by Xia Wenlin